On Sunday’s “Meet The Press,” Chuck Todd questioned whether Rudy Giuliani could critique Hillary Clinton’s practice of defaming her husband’s mistresses because “you have your own infidelities, sir.” Regardless of whether the logic of Todd’s questioning holds, Giuliani’s response alarmed many Trump critics. He said, “Well, everybody does. And I’m a Roman Catholic, and I confess those things to my priest.”
I was somewhat surprised by how much this comment upset people. Russell Moore said the remark was “Defining deviancy down.” The Daily Mail thought it worthy of a news story (“Rudy Giuliani – married THREE times, just like Trump – says ‘everybody’ is unfaithful (but it’s OK for him, he’s a Catholic who’s been to confession)”). Most bizarrely, The New York Times thought it worthy of a news story (“Rudy Giuliani, Continuing Rebuke of Hillary Clinton, Says ‘Everybody’ Commits Infidelity“)!
Giuliani’s repeated adultery is offensive, but I’m not sure that his comments in this interview were. Christians do believe that everybody is unfaithful. Jesus once said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Assuming that no human has ever managed to keep this standard, we’re all guilty. And Giuliani wasn’t talking about Bill Clinton’s infidelity but, rather, Hillary Clinton’s involvement with the practice of gaslighting and destroying women whom Bill had slept with. That’s related to infidelity, but a separate and distinct issue.
-du- jour here reminded me of Jimmy Carter’s interview with Playboy, where he said, “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.” Oh that we could all be so honest about our failures to be faithful. So in this sense, Giuliani is right to confess his sins of adultery.
But there are still a few problems with his statement.
1) It makes light of the serious problem of adultery. Giuliani has two failed marriages. He did not treat his second marriage, which produced two children, with the respect it required. His wife and children were harmed by his behavior with his now-wife. Saying “I confess those things to my priest” is insufficient. Repentance means to turn away from sin, not continue in it and treat confession as a Get Out Of Jail Free card. Lack of fidelity to one’s spouse should be taken very seriously, and we should guard our hearts and bodies from temptation.
2) Trump and many of his surrogates aren’t well-suited to comment on marriage. Healthy marital norms include exclusivity and permanence. These are important to the stability of marriage and marriage culture. Since the critique of Hillary Clinton’s actions disparaging the women her husband slept with relates to integrity, ability to uphold these norms is relevant.
Marriage scholar Ryan Anderson notes, “The norm of permanency ensures that children will at least be cared for by their mother and father until they reach maturity. It also provides kinship structure for interaction across generations as elderly parents are cared for by their adult children and as grandparents help to care for their grandchildren without the complications of fragmented stepfamilies.” Marriage is a public institution and Giuliani and Trump’s marital failures make them poor spokespeople to discuss integrity.
3) Not everyone cheats. Come on. People who struggle with a particular sin sometimes like to believe that everyone is struggling with the same sin. But in the cheating department — assuming we’re using the definition of cheating in action and not just thought — it’s not true that everyone is doing it. The General Social Survey has tracked this for decades and recent numbers suggested infidelity is on the rise, yet it’s still in the 15-20 percent range. That’s not in a given year, but over the course of the marriage. So it’s too high, but not at the Giuliani-suggested levels.
4) Fidelity is a virtue that helps us judge character. We choose our elected officials in large part because we support their policies. But in recent memory, no one has done a better job of teaching the importance of a strong moral character — and the problems caused by its lack — than Bill Clinton. His treatment of countless women, from peers to interns, as sexual objects to be used for gratification, and the lies he told and perjury he committed to avoid being held accountable for his inconstancy, were an expensive waste of goodwill and led to a breakdown in civility.
How we treat each other in our most intimate relationships is a good, albeit imperfect, guide to general character. Hillary Clinton’s practice of targeting Bill Clinton’s other women who threatened her ambitions does provide a window into her character. Donald Trump’s infidelities and his bragging about sleeping with married women provides a window into his.
Neither the Clintons nor Donald Trump have done a particularly good job of modeling healthy marriages. We should not dismiss the problems infidelities cause, and we should praise those in public life who have modeled healthy marriages, including the last two presidents.
“Bonfire of the Vanities” was much better as a book and movie than it is as a presidential election, yet here we are. I mean, according to Wikipedia, it was “a drama about ambition, racism, social class, politics, and greed in 1980s New York City and centers on three main characters: WASP bond trader Sherman McCoy, Jewish assistant district attorney Larry Kramer, and British expatriate journalist Peter Fallow.”
Granted, it’s presently 2016, but when we look to the presidential election, we have an interstate expat senator from New York, by way of Chicago and Arkansas, a WASP real estate magnate from New York, and their coteries, enablers, and defenders, many of whom are also from New York, including Trump’s present wingman and former U.S. associate attorney general Rudy Giuliani. There isn’t an obvious Jewish conspirator, but I’m sure the Internet could supply us with one. With those coteries, enablers, and defenders comes the ribald, the profane, and a heaping helping of New York values.
Tom Wolfe, writing “The Bonfire of the Vanities” in the early 1980s, foretold this: “In this little room full of people he was suffering the pangs of men whose egos lose their virginity—as happens when they overhear for the first time a beautiful woman’s undiluted, full-strength opinion of their masculine selves.”
The presidential candidates certainly hail from one of New York’s little rooms. Moreover, Trump’s predilection for pushing back against any woman he feels has slighted his masculinity is bordering on legendary. It’s as if every time he hears such a perceived slight, it’s the first time, and he must reestablish dominance.
Giuliani is less given to standing outside Megyn Kelly’s window holding a boombox blasting “In Your Eyes,” though he’s equally fond of wives. Just as Trump is on his third, so is Giuliani. He loses sight of that fondness, and what constitutes doctrinal divorce, when discussing his purported Catholicism. Then, he implies rumors of his own infidelity are both accurate and cool because, hey, when it comes to charges of infidelity, everyone has them, plus he goes to confession.
As to Giuliani’s indiscretions and confessions, that’s between him and a number of people, none of whom are me. As mayor of New York City, and during his brief stint as America’s Mayor, he performed capably. Politicians don’t have a rich tradition of keeping it in their pants. Thus, Giuliani is correct: for as long as there have been elections, there have been accusations of infidelity. The charitable reading is that he was saying just that, in his own terse, New York way.
Trump, on the other hand, is newer to the art of seeking civil service, and has never been America’s anything, other than maybe our pitchman for the art of infotainment. In politics, he’s focused more on hosting fundraisers for a variety of politicians from both major parties, including numerous ones for the Clintons. Nevertheless, he is equally versed in not keeping it in his pants. Nor is he particularly bothered by this truth.
Hillary is another mattter. As to the husband of the only declared Democrat in the race, Bill Clinton, a.k.a. Slick Willy, well, he didn’t get his nickname because it failed as a double entendre. Moreover, Hillary, being rather focused on attaining power herself and knowing her best shot was through Bill, wasn’t exactly a poor victimized wife regarding his dalliances and was instead a fierce enabler.
So when evaluating Giuliani’s comments, and the sad and sadly unentertaining spectacle that is election 2016, I am unperturbed. It’s just who we are at this point—a nation watching two members of the worst generation doing battle to be the last of them to lead us, and being horrible in the process.
We can choose sides, pretend that either Giuliani is correct or that Team Clinton is the one dropping brave truths. Or, instead, we can acknowledge that Giuliani isn’t running for president, even if his relationship with fidelity raises question about the veracity of other things he says. We can also accept that though there is probably some truth to Giuliani’s proclamations about the former first lady and the likely future first husband, our main candidates are, in fact, Trump and Hillary. And they are terrible.
We can also acknowledge that Giuliani was over the target when he criticized Hillary’s treatment of the various and sundry women who at times looked as though they might become obstacles to the Clintons’ quest for power, that she made expedient choices informed by which of those women would be forgettable and which would have staying power.
For a candidate who is seeking to be a champion for all women, it’s a fair criticism. Champions don’t get to pick and choose based on who is an asset versus who is a potential stumbling block.
Alas, to return to the good Wolfe, in this election, in this contest between various power-hungry New Yorkers and their competing fragile egos, bullshit reigns. We can be upset about this particular bullshit and the lowered moral expectations that led us here, or we can simply accept that this is the Baby Boomers’ last dance and there was no way in hell they were going out in any other way. For them, it ends not with a whisper, but a bang.